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Originally published Wednesday, August 11, 2010 at 3:36 PM

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Guest columnist

Seattle Public Schools wrong to tie teacher evaluation to high-stakes tests

The Seattle Public Schools administration is proposing to tie teacher evaluations and employment to student test scores — a bone of contention in current negotiations with the Seattle Education Association. Guest columnists Pat Bailey and Robert Femiano, past union board members, argue that the district's approach is wrong.

Special to The Times

The Seattle school district is proposing to tie teacher evaluations and employment to student test scores.

The current teacher evaluation includes student growth as a factor but the district wants an easier path and quicker time frames for teacher dismissals. The district officials' plan is to use test scores to fire those teachers they claim are responsible for the poverty and racial academic gaps and reward those with high improvements in scores. History shows this carrot-and-stick approach not only fails to reduce the achievement gap but is ultimately unhealthy for good teaching.

One result of high-stakes testing is clear: The inordinate focus on test scores narrows what is taught. Diane Ravitch's "The death and life of the great American school system" documents this and other unintended consequences. In order to keep their jobs, teachers will teach and re-teach to the test. Lost are the arts, music, PE, civics, science and even recess. Early-childhood experts point to rich school environments as crucial to healthy development, so who wants to cause the opposite?

High-stakes testing is not healthy for administrators either, as evidence of cheating and gaming the test abounds. We see it in New York City's recent test-score plummet and the ongoing Atlanta cheating scandal. Even small districts are not immune to the pressures: an elementary principal in our superintendent's previous district in South Carolina was investigated in 2008 for "systematic accountability test cheating."

High-stakes testing is also unhealthy for the student-teacher relationship. Not only does the narrowing of curricula remove the joy and enthusiasm from teaching, the increased stress (will I lose my job because Johnny didn't study?) fractures the personalization that makes for good teaching.

Teachers cannot view students as individuals when they are "products" — products that determine employment. Similarly, cooperation among teachers disintegrates as colleagues become "competitors" in the fight for layoff order and merit pay.

High-stakes testing is offered as an objective way to measure the effectiveness of teachers, but it is not scientifically valid because it fails to control for all the variables that influence the results. An objective teacher evaluation would account for the impact on student learning caused by variables including absenteeism, family mobility, food or shelter scarcity, health needs, language issues, student effort, home support, etc.

To rate teachers without accounting for these variables would be akin to judging a doctor's effectiveness by their patients' degree of wellness. Would anyone argue doctors should lose their license because patients couldn't afford medicines or didn't follow the prescribed diet and exercises? For this reason, evaluations of professionals focus on the process; did the practitioner use good practices accorded by research in their fields?

Teachers should reject high-stakes tests as a determinant in teacher employment not only because is it unhealthy for education but because it won't solve the problem of underachieving students. We believe the district needs to make changes that will truly help struggling children, such as lowering class size to 17 in the primary grades, as recommended by the Tennessee STAR project research and Gov. Chris Gregoire's Washington Learns Commission.

The district says it doesn't have the money, but we say disassemble the $12 million teacher-coaching model and trim administration as suggested by the state audit. The district estimates a $4 million cost for administration of this high-stakes evaluation scheme, which doesn't include the bonus pay itself.

Until the district prioritizes its budget to what research shows actually reduces the achievement gap, it risks appearing disingenuous with the demand that teachers bargain away their evaluation, salary and due-process rights under the guise of improving student learning.

Given the deleterious effects and the lack of research showing that rewarding and punishing teachers helps students, one wonders why this proposal is on the negotiation table in the first place.

Robert Femiano, left, and Patricia Bailey are Seattle teachers and past Seattle Education Association board directors.

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